Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Not The Same Old Garden Path – How We Can Literally Think Differently

Thinking and neuroscience

The following is a guest piece by William A. Donius.

As we age, neuroscientists tell us, our thoughts and patterns become more ingrained. The way our brains process, sort and ultimately respond to questions is akin to taking the same path through the garden over and over.

We get to know the path very well, and it becomes familiar to us. As long as the problems we face are familiar, so are our approaches to solving these problems. We are in our intellectual “comfort zones.”

What happens if our efforts to solve a problem aren’t producing innovative results? The thought might occur to us, “How do I go about thinking differently?” When we are asked to deviate from the paths ingrained in our minds, it may seem like an interesting notion, but here’s where the going gets tough.

Despite trying to think differently, we typically end up with little to show for our efforts. Our steps continue to lead us down the same old garden path.

Why is it so difficult to achieve innovative breakthroughs in thinking? I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ll hazard a guess based on my intensive research over several years in the course of writing my book on the subject, “Thought Revolution: How to Unlock Your Inner Genius”.

Since our thought processes are holistic and ingrained, we tend to arrive at familiar responses to most problem-solving questions. Our brains act like survival mechanisms; consequently, we learn what we need to do to keep us alive and evolving as a species. If we heard a loud noise in the past associated with a near-death experience, we tend to adjust our response the next time we hear a similar noise.

Absent that experience, we are more likely to respond to a loud noise by staring, covering our ears, or looking around to see where the noise came from. Ever notice how difficult it is to break out of our patterns and behaviors? Popcorn at the movies? Driving to work a specific way? Sitting in the same chairs in a conference room or in the office cafeteria? We stick to the same path because it’s what we know.

When we’re asked to think differently, we’re essentially being asked to take a path through the proverbial garden we’ve never taken before. It’s a bit uncomfortable, for we’re no longer in familiar territory. If asked to deviate too far from our comfort zone, we may even experience a mild panic.

How, then, do we break out of our intransigent ways of thinking? Research demonstrates that we can indeed learn to think differently. Some 50 years ago, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry discovered a new path by studying the independence of consciousness between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

His pioneering work led to breakthrough, best-selling books applying the implications of his research both to learning how to draw (“Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards) and learning how to resolve psychological traumas (“Recovery of Your Inner Child“, by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D.).

In both books, the authors describe the technique of using the non-dominant hand as the pathway to specifically activate the right hemisphere of the brain. Why the right hemisphere? Scientifically identified as the source of innovation (important for problem solving), insight and intuitiveness, and creativity, the right hemisphere is a valued destination.

Neuroscientists have made amazing discoveries in this area of research by studying those with brain injuries, split brains due to severed corpus callosums, and brain scans of individuals performing creative functions.

How exactly can we activate the right hemisphere? The simple act of using our non-dominant hand combined with suspending the conventional thought process allows synapses to fire in a manner that taps directly into the right hemisphere. Sound bizarre? As a former CEO, I’ve used this technique for over a decade as a way to think more creatively. I’ve also observed hundreds of others do so while conducting research for my book.

Tapping into the right brain is much more than the simple motor skill of writing with the non-dominant hand. Suspend judgement and allow the answer to the question you posed to flow from the right hemisphere through the neural pathway to the non-dominant hand. That answer will likely surprise you!

Uncanny as this process may sound, it works. The result is a prescription for literally thinking differently. Using this technique forces us to move from our familiar holistic thought process into one initiated in a different manner.

The process of using the non-dominant hand, considering a question and allowing an answer to flow forth from that hand without consciously thinking about it, is in effect, walking yourself down a new garden path – a truly amazing experience. It sounds impossible, but once you’ve experienced it for yourself, the results seem more probable and less bizarre.

A-ha, I get it!” That’s what I typically hear when individuals experience the process and validate the answer they received in response to a considered question. It’s almost like magic. Next time you’re asked to think “innovatively,” “creatively” or “differently,” don’t despair. There really is a different way to think.

William Alan Donius’ first book, “Thought Revolution: How to Unlock Your Inner Genius” has made all the major Best Seller lists including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly and Nielsen lists.

He currently serves on the Human Rights Campaign Board in Washington, D.C., writes for the Huffington Post and is working on a second book.

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  1. On July 2nd, 2013 at 12:35 PM John Gough said:

    The key is I think to get away from your own garden path, and do different things. Doing something different often allows you to think differently. R John

  2. On July 3rd, 2013 at 3:35 AM suresh said:

    Great post! Different thinking is really required in the current scenario!

  3. On July 3rd, 2013 at 7:07 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Good point John, but unfortunately too many people stay in their comfort zone. A very brainy post.

  4. On July 3rd, 2013 at 10:14 AM Pippa said:

    Great post, thanks for sharing! Mindfulness is the thinking differently for me. That's what i'm trying to put into practice.

  5. On July 4th, 2013 at 11:46 PM Richard Wheeler said:

    This is extremely interesting. The following may sound silly, but it's how MY mind works:

    – What if somebody is already right-brained? Does that person need to activate the other hemisphere and become less creative, and more of … something else (what?)?

    – What if somebody's left hand is already dominant? How can they stimulate their right brain more?

    – Picking apart my assumptions, are left-handed people "right-brained" in their left hemispheres?

  6. On January 9th, 2014 at 12:41 AM @bdonius said:

    These are great questions and ones that came up infrequently over the past five years as I was doing my research since only 8% of the U.S.population is left hand dominant. Scientists differ on what may be happening, I tend to believe the camp that suggests the non dominant hand, regardless of handedness, activates the neural pathway to the right hemisphere. However, in the 200 interviews I conducted, I saw a few examples where left hand dominant subjects got more linear, logical ideas when using this methodology and writing with their non dominant right hands. Test it out and discover for yourself. Remember though, it's much more than a simple writing exercise –it's also a thinking exercise!

  7. On July 7th, 2013 at 8:32 AM @KDillabough said:

    "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." Ralph Waldo Emerson

  8. On July 8th, 2013 at 11:43 AM Karen said:

    Thanks so much for this great reminder that we can teach ourselves to think differently if we are willing.

  9. On July 24th, 2013 at 3:43 PM Sue Bock said:

    This blog clearly shows that doing something the same old way doesn't work. If you want new ideas you must do something new. Sometimes it's completely out of the box, other times not so much. Your brain does create new neurons and expands our way of thinking. Isn't that grand? I think so. Thank you for the post.

  10. On August 21st, 2013 at 2:47 AM Beth said:

    Very interesting! We use the exercise of writing with the non-dominant hand in training to simulate working in another culture. Now I'm going to take the exercise a bit further. Thanks for the insight.

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